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Prioritizing People: Working as a Change Practitioner

Note: Cindy Hsu worked on the Student Information System (SIS) Project as its Change Practitioner from its inception through mid-September 2022. She has since moved on to an exciting new opportunity within UC San Diego; the interview upon which this article is based was completed just prior to Cindy's departure. The entire SIS Project team wishes her luck in her new endeavor and thanks her for the incredible work she’s done to set the SIS Project up for success.

Over the past few months, I have slowly been having conversations with each of my colleagues on the Student Information System (SIS) Project team. One of my goals in having and sharing these conversations was to showcase to the wider university community my project colleagues and their incredible thoughtfulness and hard work.

My primary goal, however, was to foster deeper connections within the team itself. One aspect of that goal was entirely selfish. I am still one of the newer members of the team and had had zero interaction with the majority of my team members prior to joining the project. I wanted to know more about who I was working with, what excites them about their role and what they care most about accomplishing through this project. 

Another aspect was practical. The team has gone through many changes since its inception in 2019. Along with ongoing change comes the need to manage that change and to help the people experiencing that change navigate it as best as possible. It is the charge of change management to humanize change. In our new world of virtual teams and Zoom meetings, I wanted to also humanize my colleagues, their experiences and their challenges. I hope I have done that with these team member profiles, and as the team inevitably shifts and changes in the future, I hope to be able to continue to do it.

sis-cindy-hsu-change-practitioner.jpgTo wrap up my project to speak to each one of my colleagues on the project team, I join a meeting to chat with Cindy Hsu, Senior Academic Advisor at John Muir College and Change Practitioner for the project. Cindy works 50% of her time on the project and 50% of her time in her academic advisor role, and she is one of a few team members who has been with the project since 2019. Over the three years she has been working on the project, she has watched as the team, the project and the wider university community have all had to adapt to unforeseen changes. 

I love being in meetings with Cindy because she has absolutely no fear at all in speaking up, especially when she doesn’t understand a topic the team is discussing or wants more information or clarity. What she shares when she speaks up often helps the team communicate better and ensure that we’re all on the same page. And, as they say, if one person voices a question, there are likely others who have the same question, but who haven’t spoken up. Often one of those other people is me, so I am especially thankful that Cindy is always willing to jump in.

Finding Balance

One of the first questions I have for Cindy is how she manages the 50/50 split of her work. The SIS Project is all-consuming for me, and sometimes long after my work day has ended, I am still turning over in my mind some as-of-yet-unaddressed challenge or outstanding task. I am not sure that I’d be able to work only 50% on the project, even if that is what I was tasked with doing. Cindy laughs and says, “It’s a lot of choosing between conflicting meetings.” 

She speaks about the balance she has to strike and how she has had to learn to be okay with things constantly changing. “I am constantly looking at my schedule for where I might need to, for example, leave walk-in advising sessions early so I can attend an ESR meeting or skip a project meeting to help my advising team because we can’t leave students without advising sessions,” says Cindy. “It’s a constant conversation with the two teams.” She also shares that it wouldn’t be possible without the support of her supervisor, Doug Easterly, Ed.D., Dean of Academic Advising at John Muir College. “My supervisor is extremely supportive of me being in this role,” she says, which makes finding that balance easier. Not easy per se but easier, at least.

“I also have had to learn to prioritize my workload and understand when I can multitask and when the task at hand needs my full attention,” says Cindy. Students, of course, always get Cindy’s full attention. But, some of the meetings she must sit in for the project may not get 100% of her attention, especially if she is in the midst of navigating that balancing act she described to me earlier. Cindy shares with me that, normally, she is very structured and thrives with clarity and a well-defined roadmap. Learning to be okay with constant change has been a challenge, and an area of growth for Cindy. “This has been a really great opportunity for me to strengthen my skills for dealing with ambiguity,” she says with a laugh.

Finding Growth Edges

For Cindy, working on the SIS Project has provided her with countless opportunities to grow as a professional and to push herself outside of her comfort zone. “For me, a huge area of growth was being comfortable with saying ‘I don’t know,’ and being comfortable asking questions to figure out if I am understanding the conversation that is happening right now.” Conversations within the SIS Project’s core team range from system architecture to stakeholder’s needs to data governance to communications plans and much, much more.  No one on the team is an expert in all the areas that will be affected or needed by the project, so we all sometimes feel a little out of our comfort zones. 

“I am very comfortable working within the advising community and that also crosses over into the student affairs realm, but in terms of IT or business, I had very minimal interactions with those groups before this,” says Cindy. Of course, part of what makes her valuable to the team is her ability to share her own unique perspectives, which are different from those of the rest of the team members. That is what makes the SIS Project Team a strong team. 

That is also a benefit of the project as a whole, the opportunity for stakeholders across the university, some of whom may have never interacted before, to come together, share their experiences and collaborate to envision—and eventually create—a better way of doing things.  It’s that exact type of involvement from diverse university stakeholders that excites Cindy most about the project. “It’s been very cool to see that, although it’s the student information system, it’s not just something students are involved in. There are pieces that everyone has to be involved in to make it successful.”

Learning to say, “I don’t know… yet,” is a skill Cindy has also had to develop outside of the immediate project team, when she has been asked to present to stakeholder groups at the university. Naturally, stakeholders are curious about the project and have many questions they’d like answered, but the team does not always have answers… yet. “I always thought that if I was invited to present project updates, I had to have concrete information,” says Cindy. “So, it was a very new experience for me to go to a meeting and to say, ‘We don’t have the final answer that many of you are hoping to hear.’” Not yet, at least. But when the team does have clear answers to share, those answers will always be shared.

Finding Excitement in Frustration

Our conversation veers into some of the frustrations the team has felt as the project has taken a few turns that were not expected by the team when the project began. Cindy categorizes her frustrations into a bucket of “pacing and progress” related project developments. She shares with a laugh that the project has developed very differently than how it was sold to her when she accepted the role of change practitioner. The start and stop pacing of the project has sometimes offered challenges for her in staying motivated. “When I start working on something, but I don’t know where we’re headed, I have to work harder to motivate myself to get it done.” She clarifies that, of course, she will get it done, but she’ll just have to push herself a little harder to do it. 

As she speaks of her frustrations, Cindy naturally begins to frame them in terms of what she has learned and what she finds exciting about the project. “This project has really allowed me to see all the different components of planning and of preparation and of continuity planning that go into a project, and all the people power that is involved in that.” She is excited by how many individuals are involved in making the project happen and how all their input is being used. 

She also shares with a laugh that it has been both exciting (and frustrating) to see leadership and politics in action in a large, bureaucratic organization. “I’ve never seen it up-close before,” she shares, “so now I understand it better. There are layers and layers of decisions that have to be made and then communicated, so approval has to come from many different places.” With a project as large and complex as the SIS Project, it is especially critical to have buy-in from as many areas of the organization as possible. Building that kind of consensus takes time and lots and lots of conversations and communication. “We’re trying to overhaul everything,” says Cindy. “That’s massive.”

Finding Perspective

Because of the way she splits her time between the project and her role as an advisor, Cindy often interacts with the project from two different perspectives: one as a project team member and another as a subject matter expert (SME) contributing expertise to the project. I ask her if there are experiences she has had as a SME, on this project or previous projects, that have influenced how she approaches her work as a change practitioner.

“The most recent big project I participated in was the degree audit reporting system (uAchieve) upgrade and I was a lead tester for my office,” she says and shares that she didn’t really know, at the time, what it meant to participate on a project in that way. “So, I had my own reactions, emotions and experiences going through that process,” she says, “many of which were also experienced by my counterparts at the other colleges.”

Though she did ultimately end up enjoying the experience and the opportunity to contribute to building a system that supported her and her colleagues in their work, she thinks a lot about that experience, and her uncertainty, now in her change practitioner role. “On this project, I want to prioritize the people aspect of change. I don’t just want to say, ‘I am sorry all this change is happening, but I can’t control it.’ I want to really dignify their experience, time and resources.”

Cindy sighs, pauses and then continues. “It is a lot. It is a tremendous amount of work we are asking people to do and a tremendous amount of trust we are asking for them to give us. I don’t want what we’re doing to strain that trust.” I ask her how she thinks we can maintain, and not strain, that trust with the community and she shares with me some of her experiences as an advisor during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and all the changes brought about by that situation. “It was frustrating feeling like we were the last to know about changes, when we really should have been the first to know. I don’t want anyone to feel like that on this project, so we will have to keep communication at the forefront of our plans and I think the community will really appreciate that.” 

Finding Future Direction

I ask Cindy if she has any final thoughts she’d like to share with the wider university community before we conclude our chat. As almost everyone on the team has done when I asked that question, she pauses for a moment to think before she responds to my question. “At the end of the day, I hope that I am paying it forward by leveraging my knowledge, my expertise and my contributions in support of a project that will continue and grow and develop long after my time here.” She shares that despite the uncertainties and ambiguities that remain for the project, she’s excited for the change, because of the possibilities it brings with it. 

“I don’t know what the future direction will be, but I am excited about it and, more importantly, excited to know that it will benefit students. The system we have now is a very different system than when I was an undergrad here, so we will see what more the future can bring.” For Cindy, and for everyone else involved in the project, the prospect of a change that will directly improve the student experience is enough of an enticement to see the project through to its successful completion, even with all its challenges and unforeseen developments.

Category: News, Student & Faculty